Heba Elkholy, El Shorouk Newspaper / AP Photo

Egypt: Leading anti-Mubarak activist sentenced to 15 years

Alaa Abdel-Fattah was sentenced on charges including violating a protest law, a ruling that has angered rights activists

An Egyptian court sentenced leading activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah to 15 years in jail on Wednesday for violating a protest law and assaulting a police officer, in the latest blow to the liberal pro-democracy movement at a time of rapidly eroding freedoms.

Abdel-Fattah, 33, became a symbol of the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak through his leading role in the protests and on social media. Twenty-four other people were also sentenced to 15 years in jail on similar charges.

The ruling came three days after former army chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi was inaugurated as president, and nearly a year after he toppled the country's first freely elected leader, Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi. Since Morsi's fall, security forces have killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters. Rights groups say more than 16,000 people have also been arrested.

They have also rounded up secular activists like Abdel-Fattah, raising concerns the authorities are turning the clock back to the Mubarak era when virtually any form of dissent was quashed.

A protest law passed last year heightened fears about the future of political freedoms in Egypt. The law, which rights groups say is deeply repressive, gives the Interior Ministry the right to ban any meeting of more than 10 people in a public place.

Abdel-Fattah was arrested over accusations he called protests against provisions in a new constitution that allow civilians to be tried in military courts.

He had been out of jail on bail, but was detained following the judge's ruling, according to security sources.

His sister Mona Seif wrote on her Facebook page that authorities had prevented the defendants from attending the trial, which under Egyptian law meant that they be given the maximum possible sentence and retried.

His father, lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who was also the head of his legal team, called the proceedings a "trap" to arrest his son and other defendants and to force a re-trial with them in prison instead of free.

In another courtroom, a judge renewed the detention of Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Al-Shamy, who was arrested when security forces broke up a pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo, for another 45 days, judicial sources said.

Shamy has been in jail since last August but no formal charges have been brought against him. Video posted recently on social media has shown him in a frail state since he began a hunger strike several months ago.

U.S. citizen Mohamed Soltan, the son of a Brotherhood leader who has also been on hunger strike, was transferred on Tuesday night from Tora prison to the intensive care unit of a central Cairo hospital after he had difficulty breathing, security and medical sources said.

Human rights abuses

Activist Asmaa Mahfouz expressed alarm over Wednesday's prison sentences.

"Fifteen years for protesting?????? What about those who killed? Those who steal the money of the poor? Those who raped girls in the square?," she asked on Twitter.

"There will never be a state as long as this goes on."

Wednesday's verdicts came a day after Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged the newly elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to make human rights his top priority.

In a report released on Tuesday, they described Egypt's human rights crisis the worst in decades.

"In addition to the violence and mass arrests, the authorities have imposed extensive restrictions on freedom of association, expression, and assembly, which dramatically reverse gains made following the January 25, 2011 uprising," the report said.

One of the authors of the report told Al Jazeera that the situation is going to get worse.

"If Egypt is not able to deliver a credible investigation into the gross human rights violations we've seen over the past year, the international community should step up, which should include exploring options at the Human Rights Council, even an international investigation," said Nicholas Piachaud, a North African Campaigner for Amnesty International.

In April, an appeals court upheld three-year prison sentences for three other prominent activists, including the founder of the April 6 youth movement, Ahmed Maher, charged with violating the protest law.

The April 6 group, which was also a symbol of the anti-Mubarak uprising, has since been banned.

Sisi has said that he intends to uphold the protest law and that freedom of speech will have to take a back seat to restoring security and reviving the nation's ailing economy.

In his inauguration speech on Sunday, he said freedoms must be limited by "religious and moral principles" and that criticism must be objective and free of slander.

"Anything below that is anything but freedom and instead is anarchy that appears well intentioned on the surface but is not in actual fact," said the 59-year-old Sisi. In a thinly veiled threat to activists, he said there would be zero tolerance for anyone who seeks to "disrupt our march toward the future."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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